Oscars Q&A: Kathleen Kennedy On 'War Horse' And Working With Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg On War Horse’s Four-Legged Actors, 3D And Lessons Learned

After being ignored by critics groups and other awards in the runup to Oscar nominations, Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse finally burst out of the gate with six including for Best Picture. The others were for Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. A Spielberg collaborator for more than 30 years, Kennedy started out as his secretary. She became a co-founder of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in 1981, garnering producer credit on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982. She left Amblin in 1992 to form the Kennedy/Marshall Co. with husband Frank Marshall, whom she met while working on Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the creative partnership with Spielberg has continued. Collaborations over the decades have included Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. While Kennedy has countless credits independently of Spielberg (recently, 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Persepolis) the two always seem to end up back together. Kennedy also produced Spielberg’s  animated The Adventures of Tintin and the upcoming Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis. Kennedy talked to AwardsLine contributor Diane Haithman about one of Hollywood’s most celebrated partnerships.

AWARDSLINE: What inspired the movie version of War Horse?
KENNEDY: I took our two teenage girls to see the play [in London], having no idea that it would be something I would be attracted to as a film. It was around the same time we were doing the score on Tintin. I was sitting on the scoring stage with Steven and told him I had seen this extraordinary play. I told him, I keep thinking about whether it’s a movie – it was extraordinary to watch the puppeteering, but I couldn’t help thinking how majestic real horses could be. Steven instantly said that sounds like a perfect movie story. He said “see where the movie rights are.” It turned out that Michael Morpurgo had been approached by a number of people but he hadn’t really entertained any movie offers. We were shooting within a year, which is fairly unusual.

AWARDSLINE: War Horse was a Christmas Day film, and Tintin came out a few days before. What is your strategy?
KENNEDY: We talked about this very, very carefully, in terms of how this was going to be difficult. We don’t have a lot of stars in either film. It was going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on Steven. But we also felt that, even if it were a completely different filmmaker, we would have probably made the same choice to release them during the Christmas holidays, because we felt they were the best films.

AWARDSLINE: What elements do you look for in a holiday film?
KENNEDY: Certainly when you look at how eclectic the movies are that come out at Christmas, you wouldn’t arrive at the same definition. But if you are lucky enough to have a film that appeals to the entire family – I think that War Horse is the definition of the perfect family film.

AWARDSLINE: Every screenwriter in town must be eager to have Spielberg direct his or her script. Do you get more first-look material than he can handle?
KENNEDY: To be perfectly honest, the majority of things that Steven does he ends up developing. He doesn’t make a lot of movies that come to him from the outside. I think that’s a process he needs to go through, it’s very personal.

AWARDSLINE: What is your role as producer?
KENNEDY: I usually start with a script discussion with Steven, and I work closely with the writer. Once we have a script that we feel confident about, then it is putting the cast together. It’s communication with the studio or whoever the financial partner is going to be. Once you put the crew together and move through the budgeting process, it is going to overlap into marketing discussions and how the movie is going to be sold. If it’s a huge tentpole movie, for instance with a movie like Tintin, a year and a half, almost two years in advance, we were developing a videogame campaign and massive consumer products campaign. Obviously key decisions are made by Steven, but all of that has to be wrangled to a point where a presentation can be made to Steven and a lot of that responsibility falls to me.

AWARDSLINE: To what do you attribute your longevity in such a fickle business?
KENNEDY: I don’t know necessarily why, other than I stay focused on doing the things I feel passionate about exclusively. I’m all about the work, I always have been, that’s the part that I enjoy. Each time, even as my kids have gotten older, I think maybe I should slow down a little bit, be around a little more, then I find myself getting caught up in something I never saw coming, and it’s hard to turn that off. I’m also very fortunate to still be collaborating with someone like Steven. When he’s interested in something that I’m interested in, there’s a strong likelihood of getting it made.

  1. 6 oscar nominations?
    the nomination should be for “most over-the-top attempt to manipulate what i should be feeling but am not because the story and script and situations are so sappy, weak and implausible”. whew, glad i got that out of the way.

    1. I might give you the Best Picture one (they needed to fill 9 slots). Sounds are always fickle categories. But no love for Art Direction or Cinematography for this film?

  2. This movie sticks with you (even if you think it’s sappy). SS is still evolving, which is good news for the movie business and art.

  3. Filmmakers can glean so much from studying the work of Kathleen Kennedy and her husband, the super cool, Frank Marshall.

    What they have done for the medium of film itself only equals what they have gained in life experience as players in the game. She was 30yrs old producing “Indianan Jones and The Temple of Doom”! How cool is that!! A young producer should dream to have such a magical and exciting career!!

    It’s one thing to make good films. It’s quite another to make history, lead an exciting and successful life, and work with the best within your medium in the process.

  4. Kathleen Kennedy is an awesome producer but I don’t think many other people would call “The War Horse” “the perfect family movie.” The film is not appropriate for most children under 12 years old.

  5. Personally, I felt that Spielberg was entirely SNUBBED for not receiving a Best Director nomination for this film. To be honest, War Horse should be up there with The Artist, The Descendants and The Help in the Best Picture category. It was one of the best films of 2011.

  6. War Horse was a fabulous movie that followed the spirit of the book almost to the letter.I did cry almost the entire movie.But you know what,I cried throughout the book also.

  7. I loved the movie…..can’t wait to buy the DVD….I guess you have to be a “die-hard” horse lover to appreciate this story..It deserves every nomination and more and I hope it wins every one..Now I want to go to New York and see the play and read the book…!!

  8. Warhorse is Superb! It is everything a best picture should be and more. Steven Spielburg you are truly brilliant pure genius a pure talent. I will be dissapointed extremely if Warhorse is over looked. Steven you deserve it fair and square . It made me laugh and cry feel emotion. I escaped into the film pure entertainment. Film was meant to entertain the senses yes this movie pulls at your heart because its the BEST PICTURE truly worthy of that title.

  9. Thank you for bringing reality to the screen again regarding horses. They love, trust, and are faithful to kind people. They are not our slaves; and, when they know we know this, they will give us their lives if necessary

  10. Thank you for bringing reality to the screen again regarding horses. They love, trust, and are faithful to kind people. They are not our slaves; and, when they know we know this, they will give us all they have even to the extent of giving their lives if necessary.

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